Saturday, February 20, 2010

Preus - Explaining Religion

Introduction: Preus' goal is to account for the paradigm shift that resulted in the modern, naturalistic study of religion, both its breaking free from theology and its institutionalization. In short, the modern study of religion was born from challenging the claim that only a supernatural referent grounded religious language. With Eliade and others, this foundational challenge has been questioned: now we want to understand religion on its own terms. Preus hates this trend: "it seems self-serving rather than rationally persuasive to argue that religion can therefore be understood only from within a religious perspective" (xix). Instead, he argues in favor of the naturalistic desire to "explain religion," its existence and persistence, and wants to clearly distinguish it from "religious apologetics" (xxi).


Chapter 1 - JEAN BODIN: In Bodin's time, religious conflict in Europe and the reality of the vast religious world outside of Christendom demanded an inquiry into the origin of religion as a way to arbitrate competing claims. Political crisis and the introduction of "religion" to the west coincided. Preus structures Bodin's response in the Colloquium into three categories: religious truth, policy and conscience (the intellectual, political and attitudinal).

1) Intellectual: Bodin seems to argue through his characters that the "best" religion is not the oldest, but that there is no basis on which to judge the "best." He begins, however, to turn to natural law as a common ground for interpreting religious claims. He also makes an important distinction between inner conviction and outer practice.

2) Political: Bodin, like Machiavelli and Hobbes, was an outsider to religion, approaching it from a socio-political angle and arguing for toleration for the sake of stability. He recognizes the connection between political power and religion, but, contra Spinoza, thinks superstition is necessary for political harmony. He thus self-contradictorily asserts that government should both practice tolerance and promote a state religion for political harmony.

3) Attitudinal: Senamus/Bodin wants to shift the attention of the debate from questions about religious object to questions about the religious subject and his motivations (Arendt's "modern" turn), opening the road for psychological assessments of religion.


Chapter 2 - HERBERT OF CHERBURY: A contemporary of Descartes and Bacon, Herbert shared Descartes' desire to solve the crisis of the criteria of truth. He thus set out to find the five common notions lying behind all religions, to each of which he accorded some worth. In doing so, he strictly distinguishes truth from tradition, a distinction Spinoza would accept in full. He also strangely paved the way for Freud in arguing that the reality of God conforms to the fondest wishes of mankind (Freud's essential thesis, stripped of its theological presuppositions). Finally, though he was ultimately looking for that universal root of religion, Herbert was honest enough to admit when historical data contradicted his theory, thus making him an important predecessor of the modern academic.

Like Bodin, he was greatly affected by religious conflict but nonetheless worked out of a religious perspective. Unlike Bodin, however, he did not resort to any "magical" elements (angels and demons), he more or less fully demotes revelation and authority from significance to his investigation, he imagines a global universal history of religions and he ignores, like a good Englishman, socio-political implications.

Chapter 3 - BERNARD FONTENELLE: wanted to explain why it is that people believe what they do when and where they do (41). Where do fables come from? Man's desire to explain a power that lies beyond his control. In the case of both philosophy/science and myth, the mind is working in the same way (43). Unmistakably, myths are absurd (even as they pass over into religion), but they are revelatory of the human mind, which makes them worth studying (47). Oracles can be explained in a similar fashion.

Fontenelle advances upon Herbert's rationalism, uses a naturalistic scheme and clearly separates his project from theology. Herbert was trying to create generic theology, Fontenelle looking to the common psychohistorical causes of religious belief. For Herbert, religion is to be legitimated, for Fontenelle, to be explained. Herbert the 17th c. rationalist, Fontenelle the 18th c. empiricist. Herbert represents the deistic-theological strategy, which incorporates particular values into a universal theory and has the advantage of universality but at the cost of reductionism (modern example: Cantwell Smith's Toward a World Theology). Fontenelle represents the "two-realms" strategy, which proceeds in reductive and explanatory fashion but exempts one's own religion (modern example: Berger's Sacred Canopy).


Chapter 4 - GIAMBATTISTA VICO: Vico's basic thesis, known as "maker's knowledge," is that we can know social institutions because we have made them. These institutions are best studied by investigating their origins. We can only understand a culture's institutions on its own terms: thus, we cannot simply analyze myth and try to gain from it an esoteric knowledge that makes sense on our own terms (reason). He proposes that we understand myth not in terms of reason but in terms of poetry.

There are nevertheless three common socio-historical institutional universals (rather than universal ideas à la Herbert) which we share with them: religion (belief in providence), sexual order/marriage and immortality/burying of the dead (this sounds alot like Charles Taylor in Understanding and Ethnocentricity). If we take these universals to have existed in more primitive times, then myths are not collective fantasies but rather refer to real history, real things that happened to them and their way of dealing with those things. For instance, man encounter thunder and assumes that thunder is like him (his ideal-ego), leading to its personification: thus, Zeus.

Despite his acknowledgement of historical irony, Vico assumed providence because it gave meaning to history. Hume applied Vico but stripped it of theological significance. Weber, on the other hand, would be greatly interested in the meaning giving function of religion. Although Vico himself did not outwardly criticize religion, thus defying the thesis of the book, his is a case of new wine bursting old wineskins.

Chapter 5 - DAVID HUME: With Hume, a line of criticism ends and the construction of an alternative theory begins. Following the "historic mission of the Enlightenment," Hume's aim is to overthrow religion. In that pursuit, he sought to undermine the three basic theological-apologetic pillars: 1) specific revelation (in "Of Miracles"), 2) the design argument (in the Dialogues), 3) an innate sense of the divine (in Natural History). His aim was to produce a science of man, that spurned analyzing man in terms of Newtonian mechanics. Neither did he want to refer to any platonic reality underneath it all: to the senses alone!

"Of Miracles": A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. Testimony is what establishes miracles. Testimony is not enough to found a system of religion. In fact, we should be even more worried that there is no God if the regularity of natural processes were to fail.

Dialogues: The watchmaker argument is mistaken: the world ought to be thought of more as an organism than as a machine. From the senses alone, we clearly see that mind is generated from matter and not the other way around. So why should we assume a divine mind preceding all else? We have never witnessed a world being made. There is no data for a system of cosmogony. Why, then, would we assume world-making to be at all like house-building (i.e., necessitating a divine architect)?

Natural History: We encounter nature's unpredictable and unmanageable power, which causes fear and anxiety over our future well-being. Our first way of contemplating nature in order to master it is to personify it. There are thus two moments to the "religious experience": 1) the fixing of the passions on objects, and 2) the modeling of unknown powers on human volitions. Only impressions, passions and instincts are innate. Religion is only a historically-acquired reaction formation.

Hume did not share his contemporaries' belief in the progress to rationality. Man, for him, was controlled by his passions and haunted by terrors, thus making him an easy target for priestcraft.

Hume was decisive in talking about ways of coping with life rather than theology. His influence on Tylor and the field of anthropology is unmistakable. The three problem areas of Hume's new science included: 1) defining the nature of man, 2) pinpointing what experiences account for religion, and 3) figuring out how to account for the variety of religious belief.

Hume's problems: 1) lack of evidence. Charles de Brosses (who interestingly coined the term fetishism) advanced upon his science by filling in the details. 2) a lack of interest in the social (making Hume a target for Durkheim), 3) no developmental theory, 4) no interest in the content of religion.


Chapter 6 - AUGUSTE COMTE: Comte is known for his two sides, one scientific, one messianic, one convinced that science is leading us to progress, the other worried about the spiritual crisis we face. Preus chooses to see these two sides as of a piece. Comte's two most important ideas are his belief in the evolution of religion and the need at all times for it or its functional equivalent. Together, they explain his supposedly schizophrenic philosophy, how religion can be both necessary and obsolete. Comte understood that science was right, but also that we need to replace theology with something else, something that can take on the social role of religion.

Like his predecessors, Comte wanted to look to our origins not because there is some absolute beginning or end, but because it is important to look at idio-social genesis. For him, ideas are important but only in their reciprocal relationship to society. Though Comte emphasizes observation and experience, he also thought it impossible to proceed scientifically without some kind of theory. Indeed, facts are only data inasmuch as they fit into some theory. Thus, we are justified in talking about paradigm shifts, so long as we have read and observed carefully.

He divides the world into three ages: 1) Theological/fictitious-military state, 2) Metaphysical/abstract-feudal state, 3) Scientific/positive-industrial state. The first stage of the theological state was fetishism, where man projects himself outwards on objects and demands an absolute explanation of the world out of himself. As opposed to Hume, Comte thought fetishism was a productive stage, despite being childish. Fetishism is essentially right to recognize a power of order immanent in nature. Later he will say they were right to essentially be worshiping man inasmuch as he has the potential to become powerful.

But then we grow up and discover that nature is governed by laws, not wills. This is the first principle of positive philosophy. The advance of the intellect throws off anthropomorphism, but with the negative result of an introjection of natural-law analysis into the human. Comte wants to re-establish the realm of the human, to be as constructive as the first age. He was thus critical of critical philosophy for denying spiritual power in nature and society. He was also against the unregulated individuals that results from criticism. This rampant egoism is all the more deplorable for coinciding with wealth.

To combat this trend, Comte wanted to reunite feeling and understanding, man's affective and cognitive life, which he thought divorced in the second age. To do this, we ought to worship the "Great Being," or humanity itself. Our knowledge is not only power, like nature, but a lovable power, unlike nature, for it is at our command, a thesis not unlike Feuerbach's. Comte was convinced that by re-imagining religion, we could proceed on the inexorable progress of the mind toward mastery over human destiny.

Comte's two most important ideas, evolution and functional equivalency, translate into modern terms in the following way: if we define religion substantively and look for it in its evolution, we are bound to encounter places without religion. If we define it in terms of functional equivalency, we begin to find religion everywhere.

Chapter 7 - EDWARD BURNETT TYLOR: With the aid of new disciplines like geology, biology and archaeology, Tylor wanted to write a science of culture with his master key notion of animism. First, he held that the laws of nature hold everywhere and every-when and that savages were rational empiricists just like us. Savages held the notion of animism, which consists of two "dogmas:" 1) individuals have souls and 2) the world is populated with spirits. The evidence? Dreams. We see ghosts in dreams and assume that they are real. Thus, we do not "project" spirits onto the world but simply observe and attempt to explain. Thus, Tylor grants the same rationality to his subjects that he claims for himself, but nonetheless thinks of animism as a "survival," something that has outlasted its use into the modern age. Religion, which he defines as "belief in spiritual beings," is essentially animism. Though this is an evolutionary theory, Tylor does not assume progress. He thought civilization was superior to savagery, but that it was still savage nonetheless. What we share with the savages is the dualistic doctrine of the person. Today, animism has come full circle, and it is now only a doctrine of the human soul. Tylor pitted against the "survival" of animism his own materialism, which was nonetheless "mentalistic" in that he believed in the power of ideas to causally shape the world. Contra Hume, no talk of feelings. Contra Robertson Smith, no talk of the rationalization of ritual action. Contra Herbert and Kant, no irreducible ethical dimension. Contra Freud, no unconscious. Contra Durkheim, no account of the social. Freud will, however, take from Tylor the notion that religion is essentially childish and that analogy is an important principle of scientific discovery.


Chapter 8 - EMILE DURKHEIM: Two lines of inquiry drawn on by Durkheim and Freud: 1) anthropological, individualistic, developmental, intellectualistic (Hume, Tylor, Comte #1), and 2) sociological, functional equivalency (Vico, Comte #2). Durkheim and Freud both acknowledge that religion continues to be socially necessary and that explaining religion does not mean explaining it away. Durkheim reacted against the British (Tylor) for ignoring the social, Freud for their equivalence of religious and logical thought. Durkheim and Freud both wanted to take religious actors seriously, rather than just call them crazy. Thus, they said that believers are not deceived in their conviction that they are in the embrace of powers larger and more profound than reason can control. In order to understand this, one must go underneath the symbol to reality itself.

Choosing whether one will begin with the social or the individual is square one for the study of religion. Society, for Durkheim, is a system of active forces in which it becomes possible to explain men in a new way. Social facts are sui generis. We cannot reduced the sociological to the psychological. Durkheim says the defining feature of religion is the distinction between sacred and profane, the sacred being that which is elaborated by a collectivity and embodies the community as a whole. Durkheim rejects Hume's account of the birth of the gods. The real religious question is how reality gets divided into two.

Like many scientists of his day, Durkheim looked to totemism. In the case of the plants and animals that serve as clan totems, there is nothing special about them. They are sacred not because man projects his essence onto them but because the totem is a symbol of the clan. The totem is the condensation of social force, as in fetishism (Marx would say that the condensation of social force into an object makes it mysterious but not necessarily sacred). It is the very type of the sacred thing. Only, then, when you get the symbolization of community do you get religion. The power that religion is a response to is thus a social rather than a natural power. Collective life brings the individual into a state of effervescence that leads to heightened psychic activity. This in turn leads to the positing of an ideal reality that embodies the aims of social life. The believer is thus not deceived when he believes in the existence of a moral power upon which he depends and from which he receives all that is best in himself.

Chapter 9 - SIGMUND FREUD: Freud proposed an anthropological thesis that is irreducibly social as well. Freud brought his pre-established structure to the study of religion, but matching religion and neurosis was not simply name-calling. Neurosis is a structure common to all humankind. Thus, there exists in the life of the individual fragments of an archaic heritage. Freud's analysis is centered around the model of the family. A collective is defined as that which shares a common father figure (superego). Freud's contribution to the analysis of religion was to have substituted an immanent within (unconscious wish) for a transcendent ground.

Freud's basic thesis on the persistence of religion: religion continues on because of the indestructible power of childhood wishes. Religion begins with totemism. Psychoanalysis sheds a single ray of light on the understanding of totemism: children are known to project onto animals feelings toward their father. The sacred in totemism is thus nothing but the perpetuated will of the father. The renunciation of incest and the symbolization of the father figure that follow the primal scene is both an act of fellowship amongst the brothers and the establishment of the God figure. For Freud, it was important that the primal scene actually took place: religious ideas not only include wish-fulfillments but also historical recollections, thus making it both a past and present force.

Preus again emphasizes how, despite the fact the Durkheim and Freud were wrong about certain things, the critical tradition is open to changing data, unlike theology, which is controlled by no reality principle. He also emphasizes again how Freud and Durkheim are ultimately motivated by a desire to give the benefit of the doubt to religious believers, as they take it that "no human institution can be founded on error alone."

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